Cooking Like a Mexican

 Cooking Like a Mexican

BY ALEJANDRA BORBOLLA

National Holidays have arrived, and along with them comes one of the most exquisite and sophisticated dishes in Mexican cuisine: Chiles en Nogada. This dish holds a special place in my heart and is one I’m particularly discerning about, given the dedication and effort that goes into its preparation. I’ve had the pleasure of creating this masterpiece during a memorable 12-hour marathon in the kitchen, a cherished bonding experience with my initially hesitant but ultimately willing mother. It’s a dish that brings people together, one that demands unwavering patience and a deep well of love. 

The magic of Chiles en Nogada lies in the harmonious blend of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors that dance on the palate. The original recipe boasted more than 100 ingredients, and while various versions have emerged over time, none have quite captured the essence of the original, which regrettably seems lost to history. Nevertheless, I’ve scoured for the closest approximation to the real deal, even incorporating cherished tips from my grandmother.

Chiles en Nogada season is fleeting, lasting only a single month. Any claims to the contrary are simply not accurate. Yes, modern science has made it possible to access ingredients year-round, but tradition dictates that this dish can only be prepared and served in September when the ingredients are traditionally at their prime.

Much like Champagne can only be produced in Champagne, France, and Parmigiano-Reggiano originates in Parma, Italy, Chiles en Nogada should only be crafted in Puebla, Mexico. Some key ingredients, such as chiles, walnuts, peaches, pomegranates, pears, apples, and acitrón (bishop’s weed), can only be sourced from this region due to their unique species. The biznaga cactus has been an endangered species since 2003 and is very difficult to find. However, modern life has compelled us to use more common varieties for these ingredients, yielding flavors that come remarkably close to the original.

The history of Chiles en Nogada in Mexican cuisine is shrouded in multiple narratives, but one thing is certain: it made its appearance in 1821. Some versions attribute its creation to the time when Agustin de Iturbide, a Mexican army general and statesman, played a pivotal role in securing Mexico’s independence. After achieving independence, he briefly reigned as the Constitutional Emperor of Mexico and is credited with designing the first Mexican flag and signing significant treaties. The Santa Monica Convent nuns, known as the Augustine sisters, are often attributed to creating this dish. Legend has it that they prayed for culinary inspiration to prepare a dish fitting for Iturbide’s grand celebration.

Adding intrigue to this tale, the first Chiles en Nogada were supposedly served on Saint Augustine’s feast day, falling on August 28. Given Mexico’s strong Catholic heritage, Iturbide’s arrival in Puebla from Veracruz coincided with the saint’s celebration. It’s worth noting that the shortest route from Veracruz to Mexico City passed through Puebla, making the timing serendipitous.

Interestingly, Iturbide’s civil celebration of signing the treaties took place on his birthday, September 27. He was led to believe that Chiles en Nogada had been specially created for him, a misconception since the dish had already been prepared a month prior. The only difference was that someone had the ingenious idea to adorn it with the colors of the first Mexican flag, which Iturbide had designed.

The symbolism of Chiles en Nogada’s colors remains a topic of debate. Some argue that the sisters selected them for specific reasons, while others suggest that the symbolism was added later to infuse the dish with deeper patriotic sentiment. Regardless, the colors hold meaning: green represents independence and hope, white signifies Catholicism and unity, and red symbolizes the blood shed by those who fought for the country.

Another tale spins a different yarn, suggesting that during Iturbide’s rule, three soldiers had girlfriends in Puebla. These ladies wanted to welcome their beloveds with a special dish that matched the colors of their uniforms, which just happened to align with the first Mexican flag’s colors. Rather than consulting their mothers’ recipe books, they turned to the Rosary Virgin and Saint Pascal for inspiration, resulting in the creation of Chiles en Nogada.

So, which version of the story is the true one? Who can say for certain? What’s undeniable is that the essence of this recipe has persevered through the ages, becoming an integral part of our cultural heritage, and earning recognition on the global stage.

The recipe: 

For the stuffing:

  • 5 Poblano peppers (Read below for instructions)
  • ½ pound of pork loin, chopped in small pieces, almost ground 
  • ½ pound of beef, chopped same as pork 
  • 1 big, mature brown pear, chopped 
  • 1 big, mature apple, chopped 
  • 1 big, mature peach, chopped 
  • 1 plantain, chopped 
  • 1 pound tomatoes, ripe, chopped 
  • ½ onion, chopped 
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 oz. raisins, whole 
  • 1 oz. almonds, peeled, toasted and chopped 
  • ½ piece of any crystalized vegetable (chilacayote is a great choice), chopped. *Read below on acitrón
  • ¼ cup of pine seeds (find them as piñones)
  • 2 laurel leaves
  • Salt 

FOR THE SAUCE: 

  • 50 walnuts 
  • ¼ lt. crème fraiche (NOT SOUR CREAM. If you can’t find it, use “media crema” or half cream.)
  • ¼ cup of goat cheese, “queso fresco” or panela cheese (I know these vary in taste greatly. All three are acceptable. It depends on your personal preference but goat cheese is considered more authentic.) 
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

FOR THE BATTER: 

  • 3 eggs and 1 extra white 
  • Vegetable oil to deep-fry 
  • 1 bundle of parsley to decorate 
  • 1 cup of pomegranate seeds to decorate 

PREPARATION: 

  • In a deep skillet, add two tablespoons of oil and cook the onion until the onion is soft. Then, add the beef and pork and brown. 
  • Puree the tomatoes and the garlic and add them to the meat with the laurel leaves, and simmer until bubbly. Turn the heat to the lowest setting. 
  • Add the fruit* and acitrón replacement, almonds, and raisins, let simmer until liquid consumes. 
  • Grill, skin, devein and clean the peppers. 
  • Cut a slit in the peppers carefully and stuff them with the picadillo. 
  • Sprinkle flour over the peppers. 
  • Separate the eggs and beat the whites into stiff peaks. Slowly incorporate the yolks. Make sure you don’t stop whisking! 
  • Carefully, soak the chiles in the batter and fry them. Once the batter is golden brown, take out the chiles and rest them in a paper towel to remove excess oil. 
  • For the walnut sauce, peel the walnuts and blend with the cream, cheese, sugar and cinnamon. 
  • Pour the sauce over the chiles and decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley, making a Mexican flag! 

Tips: 

Acitrón is a candied cactus or cactus pad (specifically the Opuntia or prickly pear cactus) that is traditionally used as an ingredient in Mexican cuisine, particularly in dishes like Chiles en Nogada and some variations of tamales. To make acitrón, the cactus pads are diced and then candied in sugar syrup until they become a sweet and somewhat translucent treat with a unique texture and flavor.

As for why acitrón might be prohibited or restricted in certain contexts, there could be a few reasons:

Conservation Concerns: The production of acitrón can put pressure on the wild populations of prickly pear cactus, potentially leading to overharvesting and habitat degradation. In some regions, there may be restrictions or regulations in place to protect the cactus species from overexploitation.

Health and Safety: In some cases, the use of certain chemicals or additives during the candying process may be a concern. Some commercial processes for making candied cactus involve additives or artificial coloring agents that may not meet food safety standards.

Allergies and Dietary Restrictions: Some individuals may have allergies or dietary restrictions that prohibit them from consuming certain candied fruits, including acitrón, due to the ingredients or processes involved in making them.

It’s important to note that regulations and prohibitions can vary from place to place and may evolve over time. If you’re curious about the availability or use of acitrón in a specific region or context, it’s best to check with local authorities or food safety agencies to understand the current regulations and safety standards in place.

The stuffing can be made a day before, but nogada must be fresh. 

To this day, I have never met a foreigner who is willing to make chiles en nogada, so if you do, please send your pictures to ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com I am always happy to hear from you! Buen provecho!